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Post-Millennial Road-Horror

Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Texas Chainsaw Massacre

I recently discovered an interesting academic source that explores horror and which I have included in my Exploring the Fantastic links, the Irish Gothic Horror Journal. This is a publication available in totality on the Internet, and as I reviewed the contents for various issues one of the items that caught my attention was an article by Finn Ballard titled “No Trespassing: The Post-Millennial Road-Horror Movie.”

In this article Ballard explores contemporary road-horror films and contrasts them with their origins in road-horror from the 1970s in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The characteristics of this subgenre of film involve “the centralisation of a group of generally young protagonists; the journey of this group into an unknown and hostile location, and its resulting encounter with a murderous, perverse and often interrelated clan of killers, preceding vile and gory consequence.” Ballard attributes the post-millennial revival of road-horror to Jeepers Creepers (2001), which in turn spawned films like Wrong Turn (2003), House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), and The Devil’s Rejects (2005).

One of the more interesting facets of Ballard’s discussion is the connection of road-horror to the folklore of the European Middle Ages, particularly in the the fairytale known as Warnmarchen, “which encompasses those stories that involved an act of transgression followed by a delineation of consequences.” With these origins, contemporary road-horror films are similar to another aspect of folklore studies, that of legend-tripping. Folklorist Bill Ellis discusses this in his helpful book Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture (University Press of Kentucky, 2004) when he mentions the legend-trip as “a set of cautionary legends that both warn of the danger of a site, and then functions as a dare to visit the very place and carry out the ritual that leads to danger.” When we consider that the primary audience for road-horror films are youth, as acknowledged by Ballard, then it is clear that road-horror functions in folklorish fashion both in an expression of warning related to the “dire consequences of straying from the path,” and also as a rite of passage for youth to undertake symbolically in conquering the trip through forbidden places by the act of viewing of such films.

Overall I greatly appreciate Ballard’s discussion of the topic, but I do have one disagreement. As previously mentioned he considers Jeepers Creepers the first of the post-millennial road-horror films. In my view Jeepers Creepers is better classified as either a modern monster movie connected to teen travels, or perhaps a combination of the traditional monster film with elements of road-horror. This would seem the best interpretation or classification in light of Ballard’s own discussion, not only in the characteristics of the sub-genre as noted above, but also where he contrasts teen slasher films and torture porn with road-horror and states that, “the villain of the road-horror is motivated primiarly by bloodust, and enacts the logic of the teen horror by dispatching those victims who commit misdemeanors by initiating sexual contact, consuming alcohol or drugs.” The creature of Jeepers Creepers does not fit this definition of the road-horror villain, and in light of other aspects of Jeepers Creepers and the road-horror sub-genre, is probably best understood as a postmodern treatment of older monster figures such as the demon or gargoyle.

Ballard’s article represents an interesting exploration of a sub-genre of horror. I have never been a fan of road-horror, either in the 1970s or the present. Nevertheless, this sub-genre is worth understanding, and Ballard suggests that these films are “the last remaining constitutor of ‘otherness’ in post-millennial America. The ultimate fear for contemporary cinemagoers is not that of discovering a refined psychopath living next door, but of being utterly isolated in an unnavigable environment, without recourse to rationality and to the tenets of modernity.”

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There are 13 Comments to "Post-Millennial Road-Horror"

  • crwm says:

    Though, to be fair, in Jeepers Creepers, the trouble begins quite literally when they “stray off the path” by changing their travel plans to investigate the Creeper’s truck and dumping grounds. It is very much about the “dire consequences of straying from the path,” in a literal sense. They also ignore several warnings about sticking around and, we find out, the sister even had fears about their route that she ignored: “The first time I heard that story, I used to think this would be the road I’d die on.”

    Admittedly, these “crimes” don’t match the slasher model of sex/drugs/teen insubordination (but then, that’s always been overstated – some of the victims in most of the early slasher flicks are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time: the first girl in F13th, most of the kids in the Nightmare flicks), but it resonates with the folkloric origins he cites.

  • Thanks for your thoughts, and your point is well taken. I hope I made clear in my post that Jeepers Creepers might be understood as a hybrid of more traditional monster films and elements of the road-horror sub-genre. However, in straying from the path in this film I don’t know that it connects exactly with road-horror in that the journey itself through strange territory is the straying in question. The journey of the two in Jeepers Creepers through forbidden territory is a challenge in that the road is associated with the legend of the lost teens (a version of legend-tripping), but it becomes more problematic when the trip swerves further into the investigation of the creatures lair. Is this film then best understood as the beginning of road-horror in terms of the first of the post-millennial sub-genre, or did it provide enough of the elements to spark later films that are more properly understood as the first origins in postmodernity?

  • admin says:

    In follow up to what I wrote above, and in my original post, the more I think about Jeepers Creepers and Ballard’s classification of it as road-horror, a great deal of my disagreement with him my be due to the fact that I enjoyed Jeepers Creepers while I have never enjoyed road-horror. Perhaps the inclusion of the inclusion of a creature rather than a psychopath as villain, and the scaled back violence and gore in this film as opposed to road-horror, factors into not only my enjoyment of it, but also my interpretation which differs from Ballard.

  • crwm says:

    Good points both. There is certainly a feeling one gets from JC that you’ve got two flicks – the first being something closer to the road-horror film and the later being something more like a traditional monster pic. Plus, the killer beastie in JC isn’t motivated by bloodlust. It kills to replace damaged and worn-out parts of itself.

    You point stands. All these ill-fitting details do, as you suggest, make it harder to make the case that JC should be seen as the seminal MRH film.

    I would say, however, that tracing the origins of something down to a sort of genetic level, finding tropes that may not be fully formed but that clearly carried on into later works, need not be understood in postmodern terms. I recently wrote a little bit about the origins of the Sweeney Todd story. There are several “proto-Sweeneys” that feed into the famed story, but few contain all the elements became iconic when they all came together. Though they’re “incomplete,” does that mean they don’t collectively form the “origins” of Todd? Critical theory aside, I’d argue that such an understanding better mirrors how artists actually work. They get influences from multiple places, take ideas from numerous works and sources, then fuse them together into something novel (if they’re good artists). But this is just an aside. Man, what were we just saying about straying from the way? These kids never learn!

  • peg says:

    Thanks for this! I love The Devil’s Rejects, I refer to it in my class on colour and cinema.

    I found the article a bit difficult to read in its entirety; every other paragraph or so there is a line that has text that overlaps making it unreadable…

    I wonder at the lack of discussion of Last House on the Left. I mean–??

    Looking forward to reading this more closely and hoping for better readability of this journal in future!

  • admin says:

    Peg, I ran into the same problem in reading my copy of the article (I hate to read lengthy Internet items onscreen). Some of the lines of text were lost, and the font size was very small. But the article was worth the struggle, and I think this is a promising publication.

  • Finn Ballard says:

    Thanks a lot for this post! The article is my first publication on the subject which forms the basis of my thesis – it’s so exciting to see it being discussed here! I’m sorry that there were some problems in viewing the article; I will contact the publishers and let them know.

    The comments on ‘Jeepers Creepers’ are especially thought-provoking for me, as defining the group of films which form the subgenre is one of the more difficult tasks with any study of horror. Many of the subgenres are so similar, and it can seem futile to try and separate them or to force each film to fit into one or the other. I completely agree that ‘JC’ feels like two films pieced together, and for that reason I was disappointed by it – the first 20 minutes were terrifying, and then (for me, not being a monster movie fan) it all went downhill. The first 20 minutes seemed like pure road-horror, and I have included a discussion on it for that reason; chronologically, it is a precursor of the main body of the subgenre in its modern manifestation. However, it doesn’t correlate with the subgenre as well as other films.

    The points made here about postmodernism are very interesting too. I wonder if I could ask the posters here: how much do you consider the road-horror to be a postmodern subgenre? How does its level of self-consciousness and irony compare with those of other contemporary horror subgenres?

    Thanks for the thoughts here – I’ve got a lot to follow up on from this article, and I will keep checking out the rest of the site!

  • Finn Ballard says:

    Forgot to mention – peg, your mention of ‘Last House…’ is duly noted! I was trying to keep the discussion to the modern road-horror, but should have included that. Anyway, I hear that the inevitable remake is coming out next year…

  • Wow! I am pleased and humbled that the author of the article that spawned my post has come by and found the post and the comments helpful. Thanks!

    I hope you understand that the article was very good and I only had the minor disagreement with it. Well, I had one more in that I think the folks who post reviews at IMDB should be taken more seriously at times, but that’s a minor point.

    I understand the difficult of sorting subgenres of film, particularly in horror. In my view road-horror does include a number of elements that make it postmodern, and when you consider the origins of the first cycle in the 1970s following on the heels of the turbulent 1960s, and its development in the contemporary late modernity or postmodernity, I think a good case can be made for situating this subgenre in this cultural and social context.

    I hope to hear the thoughts of others.

  • crwm says:

    Finn,

    My comments should be taken with a grain of salt as I’m certain you’ve spent more time thinking about this than I have.

    To the second question about the genre’s self-consciousness and irony, PMRH (if I can shorten the genre) seem notable not because they’re self-conscious. Many modern horror films are that.

    What makes them different is that they seem to be uniquely allusive to specific and highly restricted slivers of cinematic history. Many of the films aren’t just influenced by previous films, they make overt references in terms of music, dress, setting, and props. Unlike, say, torture porn or slasher revival flicks – which take familiar and update the context – many road movies seem to be made with the idea that the worlds in the films never progressed.

    Both Zombie films supposedly take place in the contemporary moment, but the cars, clothes, and music are all “stuck” in the 1970s. Wrong Turn has a similar fetish for vintage cars. Both the House of Wax and Hills Have Eyes remakes stick their characters in nightmarishly preserved bubbles of 1950s Cold War Americana. 2001 Maniacs occurs in a very 1960s looking “preserved” section of the pre-Civil War South. Vintage muscle cars are all over Death Proof too. I can think of few po-mo horror flicks that are so deliberately tied to the look and period details of their predecessors.

    I don’t know how “ironic” the genre is as a whole. There’s elements in The Devil’s Rejects, specifically the suicide dash at the end, that are extremely ironic. The reversal of the victim/predator relationship in Death Proof is another ironic bit. Mostly, thought, I’d say the self-consciousness of PMRH was more worshipful homage than ironic deconstruction (unlike, say, Scream).

    Good luck with the thesis.

  • peg says:

    Hello Finn–I understand your wanting to focus on more contemporary films. I suppose I see Craven’s film as the precursor to the genre, in many ways. I imaine there must be some films from the 60s or even the 50s that might count, too.

    A remake of Last House on the Left?? Oh dear. Honestly, if anyone other than Wes Craven or Rob Zombie is doing it (I liked Zombie’s re-do of Halloween), it will most likely be unwatchable. I am certainly dreading Michael Bay’s proposed remake of Rosemary’s Baby.

  • Finn Ballard says:

    crwm – thanks again for the helpful comments, which I will certainly into consideration in my thesis; after all, who knows horror better than horror fans? I agree with your opinions on the postmodernism issue. One of the contentious elements of my chosen subject seems to be the reconciliation of the road-horror subgenre with premodern folkore, but I don’t consider the subgenre to be postmodern in anything other than chronology. Some of the lower-budget films (e.g. ‘The Tripper’ which I caught last night) seem to be a lot more heavily ironic than those with higher production values, which is interesting. The lower budget films are also considerably more overtly political, I think.

    peg – Let’s all put our fingers in our ears and sing ‘LA LA LA LA’ in the hope that it will make the new ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ go away. Still it couldn’t be any worse than Neil LaBute’s ‘The Wicker Man’!

  • [...] about? I know I appreciated an article in your journal on “road horror” films that led to a post of mine that spawned some of the greatest numbers of comments on this blog, but what other [...]

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